The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
By Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson and Richard W. Hazlett
619 pp., hardcover. Oxford University Press – Jun. 2008. $35.00.

Several weeks back, while reading this important, prodigiously researched book from Oxford University Press on America’s endangered Western lands, I caught part of an interview on NPR that caused me to shake my head with chagrin. The interviewee was one of those “transhumanist” apostles; and, without a trace of irony, he described future technologies that he believes will allow us to save our minds like computer files and download them into new bodies—thus making ourselves exempt from mortality, the indignity of aging and other pesky earthly inconveniences. This unapologetic über-techno-optimism couldn’t possibly have been more at odds with the sober, sensible views expressed in The American West at Risk.

West at Risk‘s authors, three trained geologists who also happen to be profoundly lettered and skilled in the methods of investigative journalism, would no doubt call this exuberant futurist a “Crazy Eddie”—a term that they borrow from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s classic novel The Mote in God’s Eye. That novel’s main characters, the Moties, are an alien race that has become resigned to its recurrent cycles of resource exploitation/population boom, followed by overshoot and societal collapse. Any Motie who suggests a scheme for resisting this inevitable state of affairs, or who embraces human optimism in any way, is dismissed as a Crazy Eddie. Given the critical environmental state of America’s Western lands—which West at Risk‘s authors unassailably show to be in danger of losing their very capacity as a life support system—we would do well to heed these scientists’ wise Motie sensibility, rather than the rarefied transhumanist claims recently aired by NPR.

This book’s 13 chapters examine some of the major human-caused environmental problems now threatening the 11 contiguous Western states. The first chapter focuses on Western woodlands and their steady decline due to logging, agricultural clearing and shifts in our approach to fighting forest fires. Another chapter describes the immense harm that modern agriculture, with its profligate use of harmful industrial chemicals, causes to croplands, groundwater and the health of those who eat the crops. Topics covered in other chapters include livestock grazing, metals mining, road-building, off-road recreational vehicle (ORV) use, toxic landfill waste, water depletion, nuclear bomb testing and military training activities. The authors also wrote chapters on genetically modified (GM) crops and the destruction of sand dunes at the hands of ORV recreation (admittedly a bit of a redundancy of the existing ORV chapter), but these were omitted from the final draft and now appear only on the book’s Web site,

A good many readers will already be familiar with most of these human-caused environmental problems. However, until they’ve read the book, few will have come to fully appreciate just how serious and pervasive they are, or how they’ve all been directly subsidized by our tax dollars. The authors have said, in interviews since, that they were themselves surprised by these things during their research. What especially surprised Nielson, for one, is the way in which our own government has deliberately jeopardized its citizens’ and service members’ lives by exposing them to nuclear/biological substances, as part of tests intended to learn about these chemicals’ health effects.* With regard to the atomic bomb tests of several decades ago, the authors’ continual refrain is that they “ma[de] downwinders of all Americans.” And natural processes have spread the radiation across and beyond our nation—with the result that land and marine sediments the world over have now been found to contain atomic radiation that is destined to creep into drinking water, soils and food for many thousands of years to come.

The way that natural forces, such as erosion and groundwater infiltration, have of dramatically worsening the initial harm caused by human activities is one of the book’s most terrifying themes. For example, the natural process of “biomagnification,” by which toxic chemicals reach greater and greater concentrations the higher they move up the food chain, explains why the insecticide DDT poisoned bird populations as well as the insect pests at which it was targeted. Also, natural erosional processes continue to spread the damage that 1940s tank maneuvers and present-day motorized recreation have done to desert wildlife habitat and biodiversity—and while nobody knows how one might go about reversing this desolation, the evidence suggests that full recovery may well take millennia.

West at Risk has every claim for credibility. The authors cite trustworthy, peer-reviewed studies in support of their arguments, and they have long been themselves directly involved in a good deal of the research. Howard G. Wilshire and Jane E. Nielson are former U.S. Geological Survey research geologists, and Richard W. Hazlett is a professor of geology at Pomona College. Wilshire has done many previous studies on the environmental impacts of military training exercises and ORVs on arid Western lands, and his research forms the backbone of many of the book’s discussions. And the book is also important for bringing light to appalling instances of government cover-ups, suppression, hypocrisy and lies.

Peak oil advocates will be pleased to learn that the book’s authors are fellow believers. Like most peak oilers, they realize that fossil fuel depletion is going to severely limit our ability to mitigate a whole host of problems that our society has created for itself, including the environmental woes of the West. They also concur with the conventional peak oil wisdom that our inability to access ever-increasing quantities of energy will prevent much additional damage from taking place, by forcing us to curtail our current lifestyles of consumption and excess. Indeed, one of their parting thoughts on the hideous “Tragedy of the Playground” represented by ORV recreation is, “The question is—how much more damage will the environment sustain before petroleum becomes too expensive for towing several ATVs or motorcycles out to the country and back behind a huge mobile home?”

One of the authors’ aims in writing this book was to dispel some of the popular myths that surround the American West mystique. For example, the modern-day cattle ranchers who are complicit in the destruction of millions of acres of U.S. public lands often identify with the “cowboy” myth, no matter that true cowboys (or vaqueros) existed for only about 20 years of U.S. history. The authors show how the cowboy myth was “born from sensational nineteenth-century journalism, nurtured in Zane Grey novels and distorted by Hollywood movies”—and persists today because of “[a] strong alliance of graziers and western congressional representatives.” Another prevalent myth is that the West was “won” by rugged individualists operating on their own gumption and grit. In truth, the West was won at the public trough, and “never has left it.” From the beginning, the federal government has footed massive subsidies for homesteading lands, road and railroad routes, military forts, interstate highways and colleges and universities. The authors contend that in order to face up to the grave human-caused environmental problems currently threatening the West, it is critical to understand these myths and how they drive the land abuses of the present.

This book is the result of 10 years of collaborative effort, and it is so encyclopedic and comprehensive that no one review could possibly do more than highlight a few of its more penetrating points and passages. In many places, it resembles an environmental science textbook, defining key terms and illustrating concepts with figures and graphs (and the companion Web site directs readers to yet more resources that couldn’t be incorporated into the book itself). In addition to its obvious utility as a textbook, it will also doubtless be an invaluable resource for fellow researchers, journalists, decision-makers, environmental lawyers and ordinary citizens with environmental problems in their neighborhoods—as was the authors’ intent. But the book’s appeal is not limited to these groups; it is an enlightening and gripping read for anyone. Regardless of readership, one of the most important points that the authors want the book to convey is that protecting the environment is not merely a moral cause, but also one that is backed by hard science. The scientific data show that the “natural capital” contained in our Western lands is essential for our economic well-being.

Given the tenor of this review so far, it may come as a surprise that the authors do hold out hope for the future. “There is still a lot to save,” they write, “and much of the damage can be reversed.” To this end, they offer numerous practical suggestions for addressing this damage while at the same time adapting to the resource limitations now closing in around us. Let’s fervently hope that their prescience is as reliable as their expertise in environmental matters past and present.

* Samantha Campos, “Going Green: How the West could be lost: Sonoma geologists spent a decade examining the effects of 20th-century American land abuse,” Pacific Sun, June 6, 2008, (accessed Dec. 30, 2009).